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Here Come The Americans

UAE Team Emirates US rider Brandon McNulty celebrates as he crosses the finish line to win the 5th stage of the 80th Paris - Nice cycling race, 189 km between Saint-Just-Saint-Rambert and Saint-Sauveur-de-Montagut, on March 10, 2022. (Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP) (Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)
Franck Fife/Getty Images

When one thinks of the golden age of American men's cycling, the images that come to mind are probably not yellow jerseys and champagne-spraying podium celebrations, but rather, Lance Armstrong on Oprah, shadowy blood-doping setups in roadside hotels, and other unsavory things that the now-exiled United States Postal Service boys got up to in the early 2000s. Since then, a few U.S. riders have cracked cycling's top echelon, though their successes have been scant and their numbers thin. An average of four Americans have taken part in the last seven Tours de France, and until Sepp Kuss's stage win last year, they were largely invisible. Tejay van Garderen started his career out well, though he faded quickly, as did Andrew Talansky. Taylor Phinney was primed for success in the Spring Classic; then he suffered a career-altering leg injury at the 2014 national championships. But after a painful few years, a young group of American riders is starting to make names for themselves within the professional peloton.

The headliner here is Brandon McNulty, who has a chance to be a true world-class racer. McNulty won the 2016 time trial at the junior World Championships, and he's confirmed that pedigree in every successive season on the bike. In 2020, he signed with UAE Emirates, one of the richest teams in bike racing, after turning down big-time European interest when he first went pro as a 19-year-old in 2017. His patience paid off, as he finished 15th in the 2020 Giro d'Italia, helped Tadej Pogacar win the 2021 Tour de France, then nearly medaled for the U.S. at the Tokyo Olympics. He's finally being given the freedom and resources to ride for himself this year, and the results have followed. McNulty has already won three races this season, most recently a spectacular 39-kilometer solo effort from the breakaway at Paris-Nice against top-tier competition. His winter training data shows a level of physical power on par with the best riders in the world, as do the circumstances of his wins, each of which he's won by riding away from a breakaway, then setting a brutal tempo that nobody can match. It's pure power.

Paris-Nice is one of the first two significant World Tour stage races of the year, and joining McNulty on the Stage 5 podium was Bay Area native Matteo Jorgenson. The 22-year-old Movistar rider finished eighth at Paris-Nice last year, and he's currently wearing the best young rider jersey in this year's race. The other big spring stage race, Tirreno-Adriatico, also has an American rider doing stuff. Tweetin'-ass Quinn Simmons is in the king of the mountains jersey in Tirreno, though he grades out less as a climbing ace like Kuss and more of a classic specialist. His impressive Tirreno is cool, though the real eye-opening result this season was his seventh-place at Strade Bianche, which is rapidly ascending to a place among the Monument Classics of the sport. Simmons, a former junior road race champion, is an aggressive, bold rider, and he almost made a McNulty-esque solo move stick on the fourth stage of Tirreno. He's only 20, and he has the profile of a future Monument winner.

Those three riders achieving at their current level in some of the biggest springtime stage races of the season would be notable on their own, especially as all three have shown impressive levels of initiative, but they're not even the only young Americans pushing into this season well. Magnus Sheffield signed for Ineos-Grenadiers last fall, breaking his existing contract with Rally Cycling to join one of the best three teams in the world as a 19-year-old. Sheffield made his World Tour debut this winter at the Étoile de Bessèges, and on just the eighth day of his European career he won a race. Sheffield attacked late from a reduced group on the third stage of the Ruta del Sol and won with a big enough margin to zip up his jersey and celebrate before crossing the line. That's a very impressive first win against a solid field.

All of the aforementioned dudes are quite young, though their early-career achievements hint at a great deal of collective potential, certainly more than the generation that came before them. They also have Kuss to look up to, as he's proven himself to be one of the very best support riders in Tour de France mountain stages, which is about as good as it gets. Something big might be coming, though everyone rides aggressively enough for the process itself to be worth watching.

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